topics: bicycle safety, water, Nile River, Nile Delta, rules of the road, water pumps, agriculture, Persian wheel; jump to dispatch
Rider Notes: November 27–28, 1997
Breakfast: There are many reasons why we did nothing but nibble on bread and sip from our water bottles before leaving Cairo. First, it was 6 a.m. and the sun had not yet come up. "Enjoying" breakfast at that hour just wasn't possible. Second, we knew that we had a long tough day ahead of us and we didn't want to tarry too long in Cairo. Third, it was so early that nothing was open.
Lunch: Our lunch was the familiar uh-oh-we-don't-have-time-for-anything-more-substantial rush. We reached Tanta, the largest city in the Nile Delta (see the Place of the Day) too late for the 2:00 p.m. train, but in time to do all that we had to do to get on the 3:20 p.m. train. Corinne zoomed off and came back with a bag full of pita brimming with salad stuff and falafel thingies. Anthony later supplemented the snack with cookies and other sweets.
Dinner: Dinner was a snack for Corinne and andrEa who, nackered from the long ride, turned in early. And it was a wait that was almost too long for Ethan, Anthony, and Padraic who, also really tired, barely made it through their meals with open eyes. The latter took advantage of the Alexandrian fame for solid western-style cuisine and enjoyed some good (well . . . mediocre), old-fashioned, and big salads, lasagna portions (called "macaroni"), spaghetti, and pizza.
Food of the Day: Water
Water is, without a doubt, the most important liquid in the world. It covers almost three fourths of the earth's surface (some 364,000,000 sq km / 140,500,000 sq mi) — amounting to almost 330,000,000 cubic miles of water — and most living things are made up mostly of it (water represents about 60% of the weight of the human body — which requires two and a half liters/quarts every day for survival). Water is, in fact, absolutely necessary for life. Fortunately, water is usually readily available in waterways and as condensation.
Water is our food of the day for two reasons: first, because of the role it plays in our lives as we cycle, and second as a life-giving resource in the lives of the people who inhabit the Nile River valley (see our Person of the Day and Place of the Day).
Water and BikeAbout
Why is water important to us? According to one of our information resources, if it weren't for the water in the human body, the amount of heat that one human being can produce during one day's activity would raise his or her body temperature by as much as 149°C (300°F)! Normal body temperature is 37°C (98.6°F). Can you imagine being at 204°C (400°F)? The BikeAbout team would probably be even hotter, since we are doing more than our normal share of one day's activity . . . and in an already hot climate. If we didn't have water, we would probably melt! And it would be awfully difficult to pedal if we were nothing more than puddles. So, we try to follow (but rarely satisfy) one of the cyclist's rules of thumb: Drink one water bottle every hour.
However, finding drinkable water is one of the challenges we face if we are to continue drinking as much as we need. You see, unlike the water of most large cities, the water of some small communities can be dangerously impure. These days, in major cities, treatment plants make water clean, clear, and as tasty as possible. Methods used today include screens, mixing and sedimentation tanks, filters, and chemical sterilizers. But in rural communities, especially in countries where there are few protections against contaminated water or there is a history of water-borne diseases (like giardiasis, dysentery, cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis), the water can be unsafe.
We have four ways of getting around this. First, we are careful to try not to drink or come in contact with questionable water. In some cases, this can mean not using a glass, not eating vegetables washed in local water, and sometimes not even using ice frozen from local water sources. Sometimes we also have to be careful when we brush our teeth not to rinse our toothbrushes with sink water. Second, we drink bottled water. Third, we use the SweetWater water filters that we brought along. Fourth, we sometimes use chemical purifiers — like a small amount of iodine in the water — that help reduce the risk of contamination.
Still, it is hard to be vigilant about something as commonplace and important as water.
Water and the People of the Nile
Why is water important to the Egyptians living in the Delta? Well, the history of civilizations is also the history of river valleys. The earliest and greatest civilizations all developed around a constant source of water, just as the great Egyptian civilization developed along the Nile River. This is because the location of water helps determine where humans can settle comfortably. Humans need water for themselves the same way crops that humans need for food depend upon water. For example, a single full-sized corn plant uses more than one gallon of water every day. Think that's a lot? It takes about 302,800 daL (800,000 gallons) of water to grow an acre of cotton!
For you people who live in cities, the demands made on the water supply are even greater. The average American city dweller needs between 190 and 570 liters (50 and 150 gallons) of water a day, used for drinking, washing, food preparation, and waste removal. A full bathtub uses almost 95 l (25 gal) of water and a shower requires almost 20 l (5 gal) every minute. Water is also needed for lawn sprinklers, air conditioners, heating systems, etc. More than 42 billion daL (110 billion gal) of water are used every day in the United States, in homes and businesses, for irrigation and industry (hydroelectric plants, to make refined gasoline, for shipping), and in urban maintenance (fire fighting and street cleaning).
But back to the Nile and Egypt. As we mentioned, the presence of water — the great gift of the Nile River — prompted the earliest settlers of Egypt to select the lush and fertile valley as a logical place to settle. In fact, it is the Nile River and human perseverance in learning to gauge and control its more or less predictable flooding cycle (see the Tech Fact of the Day) that led to the early development of civilization in Egypt. As an undying source of water that feeds the people and farms along its banks and its delta — one of the most fertile places in the world! — as an avenue for transport, and as a thing of great beauty, the Nile and its waters continue to make Egypt great.
Person of the Day: Nile RiverYes, we know that the Nile is not a person, and yet, when written about and spoken of (and observed), it often seems like it is alive. In fact, it was the ancient Egyptians who associated the Nile with both the prosperity of the land and life itself. They spoke of their land as a lotus plant, with the delta as the flower and the Nile River as the stem. And modern Egyptians often speak of "her" with such affection that if you didn't know any better, you might actually think "she" was a living thing. Which, perhaps, it is, given how tempestuous and fickle it is.
At 4,132 mi (6,650 km) in length, the Nile River, called Nahr an Nil in Arabic, is the longest river in the world, flowing northward from its southernmost source to its mouth on the Mediterranean Sea. The fertile river basin that it has dug over the centuries covers almost one tenth of the total land area of the African continent, or more than 1,300,000 sq mi (3,350,000 sq km).
The trajectory of the Nile is as follows: Its southernmost point begins at the Kagera River in Burundi and passes through Lake Victoria and Uganda on its way to Sudan where it becomes the Mountain Nile. In central Sudan, it changes its name to the White Nile before joining with the Blue Nile in Khartoum (the capital Sudan). After Khartoum and as far as Aswan, Egypt, the joined Blue and White Nile are simply called the Nile River. In Egypt the Nile passes through the Nubian Desert and a series of waterfalls on its way to Lake Nasser. Finally, just north of Cairo, it splits into two major channels — the Rosetta and the Damietta — that feed a lush, fertile, and extensive delta (see the Place of the Day) and hundreds of canals.
Along its shores can be found tropical rain forests, coffee shrubs, bamboo, banana, ebony, rubber trees, savanna grasslands, and papyrus (used for making paper). In its waters there are Nile perch, catfish, eel, lungfish, mudfish, and tiger fish, as well the Nile crocodile, soft-shelled turtle, lizard, and fifteen kinds of venomous snakes.
Place of the Day: Nile Delta
The Nile Delta is the unusually arable, triangle-shaped area formed as the Nile River fans out into many canals and then drains into the Mediterranean (see more at the Person of the Day). (Deltas got their name because they have the form of the Greek letter "delta," which is shaped like a triangle.) There is so much water in the Delta, and the soil has been replenished so frequently, that some people consider it one of the most green , fertile, and cultivated regions in the world.
Because there is so much opportunity for agriculture, every available piece of land is used for crops or people. Which means that it is also a very crowded part of Egypt. The population density in some areas is believed to be more than 1,000 people per sq mi (386 per sq km). Many people work as farmers raising beans, corn (maize), cotton, millet, rice, and wheat.
The delta of the Nile River was just as important in the development of ancient Egyptian civilization as the ruins in the south of Egypt are its modern claim to fame. However, the wet and coveted fertility of the Delta did not allow for the same degree of preservation that the sands of the desert did. As ancient cities of the delta bloomed and then faded, all the materials used to build them were recycled and all the foundations (buildings and other structures) were destroyed when the land was returned to the farmers. There is almost nothing left to tell us about the ancient Egyptian civilizations of the north.
The most impressive thing about the modern Delta, other than the congestion caused by overpopulation and traffic, is the complex system of irrigation that keeps this area producing year-round (see the Tech Fact of the Day). This was plenty apparent to us as we pedalled parallel to its primary water canals. Every field and every furrow was being used to grow crops, and water was in great abundance.
Tech Fact of the Day: Controlling the Nile
Ancient and ongoing attempts to predict, record, and control the changing levels of the Nile River (see the Person of the Day and Place of the Day) led to the development of some very important tools, including basic astronomy, an accurate calendar, a written language, an accounting system, and basic construction devices.
Neolithic hunters first settled the long green oasis and accepted the double-edged gift it brought: the flood. The yearly inundation of water and mud covered the shores from June to October and renewed the lands with a fresh layer of rich soil. But the variation in the flood's annual strength spelled feast or famine for everyone. And so, the inhabitants of the valley have always tried to understand the flood cycle.
One of the earliest systematic controls (or at least warning devices) established was the Nilometer, on the island of Roda in southern Cairo. Built in 716 AD, it measures the level of the river. When a certain height was reached, a signal was given for a release of life-giving water into irrigation channels. The rate of taxation was also determined by the height of the water according to the Nilometer.
Today, to ensure an adequate but controllable supply of water, the river has been dammed in a number of places. From the delta barrages begun in 1861 and located just north of Cairo to the series of southern dams, the Nile appears to have been tamed. The most important of the dams is the Aswan High Dam, located 800 km (500 mi) south of Cairo and built between 1960 and 1970. Although political maneuvering for funding led to the Suez Crisis, the completion of the dam (and its hydroelectric facility) resulted in the creation of Lake Nasser, the largest man-made lake in the world (5000 sq km / 1,930 sq mi). The Aswan Dam also increased the area of arable and cultivable land by 30%, more than doubled the electrical supply to the country, and significantly raised the Saharan water table.
On the other hand, by eliminating the flow of water brought by the annual floods, it has also forced the increased use of chemical fertilizers and increased silting problems in the new lake. The dam is also a dangerous target for sabotage. Finally, the creation of Lake Nasser drowned the ancient Nubian homeland and, along with it, the sites of many temples. (Fourteen temples were actually moved stone by stone in a monumental UNESCO project that salvaged some important pieces of Egyptian heritage.) Another dam, the Owen Falls Dam at Lake Victoria, is one of the most important hydroelectric facilities in Africa, feeding the needs for in industrial growth throughout East Africa.
On our trip through the Delta, we identified three basic devices for getting water from the canals into the irrigation ditches that crisscross the Delta. The oldest and most traditional is called the shadoof, an early form of human-powered pump first used in Egypt in about 1600 BC. Next is the Persian wheel, created in the second century BC in the Middle East. A water wheel powered by people or animals, the Persian wheel dips into a canal and then raises water up to the irrigation level before releasing it. Finally there is the modern water pump which chugged away in every corner of the Delta.
Group Dispatch, November 27–28
We had originally intended to leave Cairo on Thursday morning and head northward into the fertile triangular area, called a delta (see the Place of the Day), at the mouth of the Nile (our Person of the Day). After 11 days out of the saddle, we were looking forward to getting back on our bicycles. However, our enthusiasm was tempered by a little concern as well, since, judging by what we had seen in Cairo, the traffic on the way out of town and maybe even throughout the densely populated delta area could be truly chaotic. We had therefore planned on a very early (pre-dawn!) morning departure.
Unfortunately, the time we spent last night at the offices of our always-generous Egyptian Internet Service Provider inTouch Communications for the Chat 'n' Debate and other Internet-related tasks kept us from our beds until almost 1 a.m. Overwhelmed at the thought of having to pack and be ready for a 5 a.m. departure, we all agreed that postponing our exit for a day would be smart and could be put to good use . . . resting. Most of us are still ailing (coughs, colds, digestive troubles, etc.), so a full day of R&R (rest and relaxation) was more than welcome. It was also Thanksgiving Day, and although we had each come to grips with the idea of being so far from our families and a delicious turkey feast, the holiday spirit vaulted the Atlantic and convinced us all to stay in bed.
Which we did. Only in the late afternoon and evening did anyone venture into the streets. Corinne and andrEa ran some personal errands while Padraic, Anthony, and Ethan went and saw a movie! Yes, entertainment. They saw "The Peacemaker" at a movie theater in a very modern mall they had not yet explored. There were seven floors of bright shops and escalators that looked like they could be in any American city. Three interesting things about the movie experience: first, it is by assigned seat; second, there are different prices according to the seats you request; third, there was an intermission! But in all other respects, it was exactly like seeing a movie in New York. (Well, almost exactly, since there were Arabic subtitles!)
No one stayed out late that night since the next day was when the early-morning departure WOULD occur.
Sure enough, our alarms went off at 5 a.m. Groggy, confused, and a little grumpy, everyone dragged the bags and bikes downstairs. (First we wiped two weeks' worth of slimy pollution and city grime from the Selle Royal saddles — there was more than we could believe.) By 6:30 a.m., just as the sky was beginning to glow with the first hints of morning, we had left the island of Zamalek (the Cairo neighborhood-on-the-Nile where our hotel was), crossed the Nile to the west, and started moving downriver toward the north.
It was eerie, even more eerie than our morning ride into Cairo. A morning dew-fog still hung to the ground and the filtered, uncustomary morning light made it seem like we were cycling through a fairy tale. Only, instead of turning a corner and coming upon a storybook castle full of waltzing princes and princesses, we took every bend carefully, wary of the unexpected, looking out for speeding trucks and buses. This became even more important after Ethan and Corinne piled into andrEa, who had gone down on a super-slick area of road. Fortunately, everyone was wearing helmets and no one was badly hurt. Just a couple of scrapes and bruises.
As the sun rose higher and the day slowly came to life, more and more cars appeared on the road, and the real cacophonous mayhem of Egyptian roads began. It was the usual disorder of trucks, pick-ups, buses, vans, minivans, jeeps, taxis, cars, tractors, motorcycles, mopeds, (all going way too fast) along with donkey carts, and bicycles, honking, beeping, or bell ringing all the time. Really, all the time. Big horns, little horns, deep horns, high horns, crazy electronic horns, and bicycle bells. Sometimes it seemed like drivers were honking at the trees and clouds. Maybe even at the air! Because to our un-Egyptian eyes, there just doesn't seem like there could be any logic to why anyone would honk as much as most Egyptian do. Especially when everyone else is honking at the same time. No one can hear the horns of any other cars over the sounds of their own horns. Maybe that's the idea: People honk to block the noise of other honkers.
And if that wasn't enough, as the dawn gave way to day, people started walking along the roadside, with donkeys, horses, or water buffalo, and carrying huge baskets or pulling heavy carts loaded with hay or vegetables or bags piled high with unknown things: grain? flour? earth? And the people wanted to get our attention as well. Hisses and really loud kissing sounds seemed to fly at us from every side, whether or not we could see the caller. (In Egypt, to get your attention, people hiss or make very loud kissing-type noises. It has been hard for us to get over the feeling that they are being rude or suggestive. But all they really want is to get your attention and to say what everyone in Egypt seems to know how to say in English: "Hello, welcome to Egypt. What is your name? My name is [fill in the blank]. How are you?")
So, we returned their hellos, waved a lot, and continued to push through the lifting fog. We also continued to be extra careful about how we biked. Our choice of roads had left us on a two-lane thoroughfare (one lane in each direction) that did not have a very good shoulder and was sometimes not in very good shape, especially in and near villages and cities. This meant that we had to watch the road as much as we had to keep an eye out for every vehicle traveling in any direction and every person who was saying hello. An eye on the road was particularly important since the rules of the road in Egypt sometimes seem more like casual suggestions than actual rules.
People mostly drive on the right side of the road, except when they are turning or merging or passing, in which case time spent on the wrong side seems not to bother anyone. It can be particularly harrowing when cars pass cars in the same direction since drivers don't wait for the lane in the opposite direction to clear before trying to pass. They just, well . . . they just pass! And on-coming traffic does what it must to get out of the way. This usually involves a lot of horn honking (of course) and light flashing, and courage. Everything usually works out, with the passing car returning to its proper lane or the other car swerving off to the side of the road to avoid a collision. When we are cycling we have to be especially alert to cars traveling in our direction that can get forced off the road right next to us, in addition to cars passing cars and traveling in the opposite direction. It can feel like playing chicken with a military tank though, since the opposite car neither slows down nor leaves much room. This was made even more clear to us when two minivans traveling in opposite directions came so close to one another that, right before our eyes, one bus' side-view mirror was demolished by the side-view mirror of the other. No one even stopped to ask questions or sweep the glass off the road. It would probably have been too dangerous.
But we persevered. Through the spooky lifting fog and despite the traffic and absence of road signs in anything but Arabic, we stuck to our purpose and the road. And we were rewarded. The farther we traveled into the delta, putting distance between us and Cairo, the greener, calmer, and more lush it became. The road, once crowded with honking, speeding, gas-spewing trucks, had more donkey carts and pedestrians. And the gentle welcoming hospitality of the farming people became more evident. On one occasion, as we were resting by the roadside, a man appeared from out of a nearby hut made of dried earth and wood and surrounded by vividly green fields of sun-lit alfalfa and other crops. In broken but easily understandable English, he asked us if we wanted directions, or help, or tea, or even lunch. We thanked him but said no since we wanted to keep going. But, when we weren't jousting with cars, we felt his welcome everywhere.
We also finally took advantage of the relative calm to look around. The morning's cycle was, without a doubt, the most otherworldly cycling experience we have had so far. The densely populated villages we passed through, the colors, and the chaos were completely unfamiliar to us. We could easily identify the contrasts we expected: the older Egypt of run-down towns and garbage-strewn streets so unlike the signs of modern growth and prosperity; ancient farming practices, like basic irrigation plots, fed using the shadoof and the Persian wheel (see the Tech Fact of the Day), or the much more modern mechanical water pumps ; a stretch of new brick-and-plaster two-story buildings being built over a thick clump of tiny and ramshackle dust- and exhaust-caked mud shacks; donkeys heehawing at honking trucks; a filthy, shoeless boy running alongside a girl wearing a perfectly pressed school uniform; one woman wearing the burqa (body-shrouding covers of the more devoutly religious) walking with another dressed exactly like a business executive from New York; a sun-healed hard-skinned farming man in a turban, a galabiyya (traditional robe), and clogs laughing and smiling at a joke told by a friend in a suit and tie. Everywhere we turned, there were people climbing in and out of buses and vans, buying or selling from shops packed with everything imaginable, eating at noisy street-side stalls made more deafening by loud music. There were even roadside butchers who hung skinned beef carcasses from hooks right alongside the road and sold meat from tables only a foot from the pavement. The list could go on and on and never do justice to the sensory overload.
Finally, by 2 o' clock and after 90 km (56 mi) of mind-blowing sights and sounds, we reached the outskirts of Tanta, the biggest city of the delta. We had to slow to a crawl to get through the muddy and pot-holed streets packed with the animals and people in a poorer part of town. We also had to stop frequently for directions (we had not seen a sign in English since we left Cairo) to the train station, where our cycling adventure ended and train adventure began. Since we were running short on time before our planned winter break, we had decided to take a train to Alexandria for a few days.
So far on our trip, we have succeeded in taking our Wheeler bicycles on trains in France, Spain, Italy, and Tunisia. It was time to test the Egyptians. After figuring out how and where to buy tickets and deciding to reserve in the first-class coach — you have to see the crowded and tight second- and third-class cars to know that taking bikes on them would be possible but very difficult — we moved everything to the right platform, prepared everything for loading, and awaited the train. Having practiced on- and off-loading bikes many times now, we are practiced professionals, but nothing could have prepared us for what almost happened.
No one told us that the first-class cars had only one door and that the train we were taking would stop for only THREE minutes! When the train did arrive, we were about 23 m (75 feet) from where we had to be. And when everyone on the platform started rushing, we realized there was trouble. We had to run five Wheeler bikes, two trailers, two big and heavy sacs, five sets of panniers, and assorted other bags to the single door through which there would be no official room for the bikes.
Anthony ran with two bikes and leaned them against the train before running back to get more stuff. Ethan (with two more bikes) jumped on the train and started trying to arrange everything so there would be room for all the bikes, bags, AND five people. After what seemed like only a few seconds, Ethan turned around and realized that some helpful people were literally throwing the remaining bikes into a pile on the train behind him because . . . because . . . the train was actually leaving! It was moving! And andrEa, Corinne, Padraic, and Anthony were still on the platform!
Ethan quickly vaulted over the pile of bikes and leaned out the door, ready to grab bags and people as they arrived. And what did he see? His four panic-stricken and wide-eyed teammates all in a row, running alongside the train as fast as their legs could carry them and their very heavy bags. It seemed like they would never make it. They were too far away and carrying too much stuff. People on the platform and others in the train with Ethan were yelling at them to run faster. But they couldn't. "Uh oh," thought Ethan (who didn't have the tickets), "this could be a problem."
Fortunately, just as it seemed like Ethan would have to travel alone with the Wheelers and everyone else would wait for the next train, the train slowed and then stopped and made it possible for everyone to jump on board. Whew. But after only a few seconds, it started again and everyone was stuck in a small area with a pile of bikes, bags, and nine people — the five of us, a porter, the conductor, and two other helpful people. Needless to say, it took another fifteen minutes to sort out the mess, stash the bags, arrange the bikes, and find our seats. But whew, at least we were all on the same train.
The rest of the day ended somewhat peacefully. Most of us slept on the train (remember, we woke up at 5 a.m. and had cycled almost 90 km) and we knew we were getting off at the last stop where there wouldn't be any reason to rush or panic.
In Alexandria, we unloaded our bags from the train, threw everything on the bikes, and in the early dusk went straight to a hotel overlooking the big, brightly-lit and crescent-shaped harbor. Corinne and andrEa turned in right away while Anthony, Padraic, and Ethan enjoyed a much-needed dinner and then fell fast asleep.
Questions? Ask Ethan !
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